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Opinion - the wrong colour stamp is the tip of the iceberg

An editorial from Richard Griffiths, head of the British Poultry Council (BPC), explains the recent upsets in the UK poultry industry stemming from Brexit.

5 February 2021, at 7:00am

The British poultry meat sector, like many others, has been dealing with the problems thrown up by a brand new UK-EU trading regime that we had a handful of days to implement. Every day presents a new challenge and we have had our share of rejected loads for the wrong colour stamp on documentation or out of order page numbering. Our members have been cautious in sending product to the EU, very much in line with overall trade in the first week of January being only one-fifth of normal volumes. But this is the life of a third country exporting to the EU and we have to accept that we are stuck with this added bureaucracy and cost, and quickly learn to deal with it. It was apparently what we voted for.

Within a movement of a clock’s minute hand we went from being able to freely move product to being considered, as a third country, a risk to the EU’s food safety, animal health, and plant health regimes. Right now we are in the midst of dealing with the minutiae that comes with it. The administrative errors, the physical checks, the lack of guidance are incredibly frustrating and costly but they are problems that can and will be solved. Businesses, particularly those already used to trading with third countries, will learn and adapt. If we are to maintain a just-in-time supply chain they will have to.

Beyond the immediate problems there are issues that we as a nation have yet to acknowledge, let alone address. Every delay, every piece of paperwork, every check, every new requirement, every rejected load adds to the cost of production and will challenge business viability and sustainability. It must be noted that rejected loads have to be returned to their point of origin and will likely be destroyed; good food being wasted for errors on documentation.

Take for example the completion of an Export Health Certificate (EHC) that now has to accompany every product of animal origin load that goes form the UK to the EU. A business has to provide information to an Official Veterinarian who must fill in and stamp an EHC. This takes time and we have already borne the brunt of errors being made in the rejected loads. Every certificate is unique to a consignment and the vet has to get every part right. Additionally, an EHC is required to be presented in three languages: english, the language of the EU country in which the load arrives, and the language of the destination country. The EHC is then processed by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) before being officially issued.

While we are dealing with the immediate consequences of errors we must be aware of the resources to deliver the new requirements, the effects on the flow of food, and ultimately the implications of both for cost of production.

There are elements, like the EHC, that the Government must carry out or oversee. As an industry we must be sure that Government is putting the necessary resources and processes in place to deal with what will be a massive task as export volumes increase and when we begin doing the same check on imports come April. We must have sufficient Official Veterinarians available to do the work, which is questionable considering that 95 percent of the Food Standards Agency’s vets are non-UK citizens and veterinary public health is a low priority in UK vet schools. Even the processing of EHCs needs to be reliable and consistent. In this day and age we must have an electronic certification system and get away from everything being printed.

The flow of food, and ingredients, is essential for a just-in-time supply chain. Stockpiling of perishable goods is not realistic in the way that automotive businesses may keep higher stocks of car parts. Delays and interruption to the flow of food may mean that while overall there is sufficient supply it is not where it needs to be. This may lead to a reduction in the variety of products on offer – those with fewer ingredients or ingredients that can be substituted – and the cost of production rising where supply cannot reach where the demand is.

Thus cost of production is affected from both directions. The addition of new requirements needs more people, more time, and more resources, and disruption of the flow of food leads to increased cost in the supply and demand dynamic.

All of this is happening at a time when we are dealing with a pandemic, and as an industry facing the challenge of avian influenza, and both of these have their own costs. For Covid, the investments made for the safety of our key workers and the continuation of food production have been absolutely necessary, but they are ultimately an additional cost. Avian influenza brings its own challenges and costs in both trying to eliminate the disease in the UK, and also closing or restricting third country export markets.

This is by no means a woe-is-me account because our sector will do everything it can to mitigate these impacts and still be a sustainable food industry feeding the nation. However, we cannot brush under the carpet that the cost of food production is increasing on many fronts and investing in technology, automation, and productivity can only get us so far.

While we’re investing in our future we need the Government to do the same for the sake of the UK’s food security, and we have three things Government could do that would help us immensely over the coming months:

  • Work with EU partners to construct definitive guidance to eliminate administrative errors
  • Invest in resources for future trade such as provision of vets and e-certification
  • Have a strategy for the delivery of Covid vaccinations to the food sector

Finally we need a food system that delivers safe, nutritious, and affordable food to the standards we want. This may seem like seriously big-picture stuff compared to the detail of completing an Export Health Certificate, but it is all part of how we value and produce food and the responsibility we have for feeding our people. Frankly, if we can’t get the right colour stamp then what hope for the rest.